by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
In the earliest stages of training, we show horses what we want them to do by applying a pressure then rewarding the horse by releasing that pressure the moment he responds correctly. I call this a teaching pressure. Later, when the horse has developed a degree of understanding, we’ll ask him to do something with directing pressures. Later still, we can tell the trained horse what to do and add enforcing pressures if he doesn’t pay attention.
In the beginning, though, all we’re doing is trying to show the horse what we want him to do. We always use the smallest amount of the least exciting pressure we need to do the job. We never want to use a pressure that startles the horse. Our primary goal, always, is to keep the horse working in a rhythmic, relaxed way. Our pressures should never interrupt that feeling in the horse.
As we show the horse what we want, we want to create the feeling that we are the safest place for him to be no matter what’s going on. Any pressure we use should be just enough to get the horse’s attention on us. It should cause him just enough discomfort to move in the direction we want him to go. When he does, we reward him by removing the pressure. A pressure should never create any feeling that we are predatory or punitive or unsafe.
The pressure should be just enough to interrupt whatever the horse is doing and get his attention on you. It should never cause any kind of startle or create any tension in the horse. Every horse is going to present its own individual responses to different degrees of different pressures. There are no recipes or formulas. Your first job as a trainer is to observe how that individual horse responds to pressures so you can figure out the least amount of a particular pressure it takes to get the job done with that particular horse.
In general, the further away you are from the horse, the “louder” your pressure may have to be. The closer you are to the horse, the “quieter” you can be. But all sorts of things are going to affect the individual horse’s response. The horse’s gender, its age, its previous training experiences, the weather, how much exercise it had the day before and all sorts of other stuff can affect its responses on a given day.
We’ve talked about this before but it’s worth repeating again that the horse has both a primary and secondary line of influence. We apply our pressures in relation to those lines of influence in order to show the horse what we want him to do. Horses first become conscious of things in relation to their primary line which runs along their spine and goes forward between their ears and out behind their tail. The trainer needs to figure out just how far out in front and back behind an individual horse perceives its primary line. It’s their primary line because it’s the line they travel along and we generally use it to direct their forward movement.
The secondary line crosses the horse’s body at right angles to this primary line in the vicinity of the shoulders or girth area. This crossing point is actually the neutral or balance point along the horse’s primary line. At this point, the horse feels like its primary line isn’t moving forward but its not going backward, either.
Like the primary line, the secondary line runs as far to the left and to the right as the horse notices it. We generally use this line of influence to direct turns or any movement of the forequarters or hindquarters off the primary line. So the trainer basically has four quarters or quadrants of influence to work in.
As a broad overview of how you use teaching pressures along lines of influence when you’re starting a baby green horse, the first thing you would do is turn him loose in an arena. He may run and play if he needs to spend some energy or he may just start to smell and look and investigate things. When he’s at the investigating stage, you just use your presence as a pressure to get his attention by following him on his primary line. If he doesn’t interact with you in any way, you’re too far behind him. If he trots off or startles or starts to run again, you got too close and you lost an opportunity to figure out how to subtly influence your horse.
So you’re just walking along behind him on his primary line, just keeping his attention on you and moving him along without pushing him out of a walk. You walk as though you’re watching birds or enjoying the weather, not like you’re a predator stalking the horse or hunting or anything like that. You’re not interested in forcing the horse’s attention on you. You just want to develop his awareness of you. The more the horse becomes aware of you, the more he’ll check back with you and the more control you’ll get over every stride.
Now you can start to play with the concept a little bit. As the horse is walking along a wall or fence, you move off the primary line a little bit to the inside. This will cause the horse to turn his head to the side you are on a little bit but you just keep him moving along the wall. The horse starts to get the feeling of a corridor of pressuresyou on one side and the wall on the other. Feeling and responding to a corridor of pressures is an important basic lesson.
In the beginning, you don’t want to create a feeling in the horse that he’s blocked when he reaches a corner. So as the horse nears a corner, you have to go back toward the wall and follow on the primary line again. I’m going to jump way ahead in the training schedule now to the point where you’re walking alongside the horse with his secondary line running through both his shoulders and yours. The horse is moving in a corridor of pressures created by you on one side and the wall on the other. Now as you reach the corner, you’re going to turn your shoulders and head in the direction of travel. Turning the secondary line creates a feeling in the horse of an opening for his primary line to keep moving forward.
If you wanted to show the horse a stop instead of a turn, you wouldn’t turn and open the secondary line so the horse’s primary line could keep moving. Instead, you would show him what you wanted by turning and facing his shoulder to create a feeling of “neutral” instead of forward and you would use the corner to block the horse’s forward movement and help him figure it out.
So that’s the basic theory of how we use teaching pressures to show a horse what we want him to do while keeping a feeling of rhythm and relaxation throughout our training session. Next time we’ll go into a bit more detail about all the steps we take a baby green horse through in his early lessons.